35 Hunter Street Newcastle, New South Wales 2300
|Opening hours||L Tues-Sat; D Mon-Sat|
|Features||Licensed, BYO, Outdoor seating, Accepts bookings, Business lunch, Degustation, Events, Groups, Romance-first date, Vegetarian friendly, Wheelchair access, Private dining, Gluten-free options, Family friendly|
|Prices||Expensive (mains over $40)|
|Payments||Diner's Club, eftpos, AMEX, Cash, Visa, Mastercard|
|Phone||02 4926 1014|
In an attempt to make the wider world more aware of Newcastle, the local city council has launched a major rebranding exercise under the banner "Newcastle: Seechange". But even better than seeing and feeling the change in the air of our state's second largest city, is tasting it.
There is some great dining in Newcastle at the moment, most of it driven by young, next-gen chefs. On the streets, there are lively little tapas bars, wine bars, coffee roasters, and reimagined fish-and-chip shops.
Tim Montgomery is doing cheeky dishes such as "coals" of brandade and scallop mousse; and "broken cheeks and black eyes" of slow-cooked pork with black-eyed peas in a theatrical folly of a Victorian dining room at Bacchus. The cool new kids in town, Beau and Sue Vincent, are playing with aromatic broths, foraged leaves and sea succulents at their sweetly sophisticated Subo.
But the one that keeps pulling me back is Restaurant Mason, not because it's the smartest or the finest diner in town, although it's definitely both fine and smart. I think it's because it just feels the most Newcastle-y.
Local lad Chris Thornton worked his way steadily up the local restaurant scene, culminating in a good stint with fellow Novocastrian Brett Graham at his Michelin-starred restaurant, The Ledbury in London, now number 13 on the World's 50 Best. After head-cheffing at Bistro Tartine for two years, he opened Mason in 2011.
The former Atlas cafe was simply refurbished, with wall-length banquettes and white-clothed tables. A narrow kitchen pass cut into the wall acts like a plasma screen to the buzzing kitchen, where tall, blue butcher's apron-clad chefs with tattooed arms plate, pour and preen the dishes prior to dispatch.
It's even buzzier in the dining room, as Newcastle's movers and shakers, landlords and property agents, councillors and creatives meet and greet. I'm advised by one to have the scallops with gnocchi, spiced almond and ras el hanout, but go for the ravioli of confit pork cheek instead ($23). It's lovely, a single mounded raviolo filled with sweet meat, teamed with crisped pancetta, a bed of squash and zucchini, a velvety veloute of roasted garlic and a natty top hat of crisped baby onion rings. More companion plating comes with a blonde-on-blonde assembly of finely diced squid that has been brilliantly, barely, cooked in cauliflower puree, with bibs and bobs of jet black squid ink, crisp squid tentacles and pop-in-the-mouth crisp wild rice under a foam of nutty almond milk ($23).
Then the waitress appears. "Chris wants to change the Jerusalem artichokes with your quail to parsnips, so he's asked me to check if that's OK." Of course. "Good," she replies cheerily. "That's three out of three, so far," and scampers off to the next table. Note that was Chris, not Chef; and it was asking, not telling. There's such an absence of big-city attitude here, I almost miss it.
The wine list is user-friendly and compact without showing off; the mainly Australian labels listing a fair selection of nearby Hunter Valley wines, including a crisp, peachy 2009 Scarborough Chardonnay ($40).
A jumble of lightly smoked quail breast and confit legs ($39) comes with the newly added caramelised parsnips, as well as appealingly bitter wilted witlof and a cute Scotch quail egg, split in two to reveal the runny yolk. There's no fear of flavour here, nor in a main course of neat little rounds of boned chicken ballotine stuffed with chicken mousse and sauteed mushrooms, teamed with crisp, boned, deep-fried chicken wings filled with creamy chicken liver pate ($39). A bed of buttery cabbage gives it a comfort factor, while exclamation marks of celeriac and molasses puree do what exclamation marks do - add emphasis.
There's parkin on the dessert menu, a reworking of the traditional Yorkshire ginger cake ($15) with apple jelly and gorgeous brown butter and caramel ice cream, but there's a sneaky little mid-course available ($6) of Spanish manchego delicately touched with honey, white chocolate and macadamia that's too sensational to miss.
It's impossible not be won over by the poise and polish of the food and the easygoing nature of the room at Restaurant Mason. If you really want to see how Newcastle has changed, start here.
It's by Newcastle, for Newcastle.
The dining room gets a bit Siberian at the back.
Ballotine and crisp wing of organic chicken, pate, celeriac and molasses puree, and buttered cabbage, $39
Terry Durack is chief restaurant critic for The Sydney Morning Herald and senior reviewer for the Good Food Guide. This rating is based on the Good Food Guide scoring system.